Most Likely to Reflect

Revisiting high school


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I recently attended my 40th high school reunion. 40 years out of high school is a long time: If you’re not exactly old, you are quickly approaching being so. It’s a case where you find yourself repeating in cretinish fashion, “I can’t believe I’m going to my 40th high school reunion!” expecting that by repeating this enough times you’ll discover that you made a mistake, and it’s really your 30th reunion that you’re going to.

In planning to attend a 40th high school reunion, you also have to decide whether to keep quiet about it or publicize it in the hope that others will exclaim, “How could you possibly be going to your 40th high school reunion? You look so young!” — a response you get less often than you’d think, even though it seems the logical, polite thing to say.

I have to confess that I was looking forward to this reunion. Why, is a mystery to me.  I had not particularly liked high school — or, should I say, high school had not particularly liked me. I was not a prepossessing adolescent (though in my defense, few adolescents are). In my case, I can narrow things down to two factors that were the blight of my high school years: a moderately unsightly skin condition and seriously unmanageable hair. This was the late ’60s when hair was important, and mine did not fall in silky curtains on either side of my face in the manner of Peggy Lipton on The Mod Squad. This may seem like a minor complaint, but given that the adolescent mind has not yet matured, superficial problems like bad hair can produce profound angst. I often think that my life would have taken a completely different course — no plodding through Wordsworth’s The Prelude and hence no Ph.D. in English — had my hair and complexion been better. You may say that I can thank my bad hair and bad complexion for that, but that depends on how you look at it.

The late ’60s and early ’70s, which constituted my high school years, were particularly rife with requirements that I could not fulfill. It was not only the Peggy Lipton hair where I fell short: The whole political tone of the era was beyond me. I could never master the mix of righteous indignation and hedonistic laissez-faire that was the order of the day. Yes, I worked for Eugene McCarthy, read the names of the war dead in front of the municipal lily pond, and licked envelopes for the Fair Housing Council, but I could never learn to play the guitar or hang out at the town green and smoke dope. The late ’60s were all about letting go of inhibitions, but for some reason, I couldn’t let go of mine. Instead, I established a kind of default profile of being above the fray, wearing all black and refusing to sign the high school yearbook — small gestures of rebellion that no one seemed to notice.

But to the reunion. The event had been impeccably organized by one of my classmates, whose energy and goodwill suggested that she was someone whose friendships I ought to have cultivated in high school had I had any sense. She kept up a steady stream of emails, urging us to attend. People began writing things like: “can’t wait to see everyone and catch up” and “looking forward to reliving old memories.” I got into the spirit myself, which I would never have done in high school, where not getting into the spirit of anything had been one of the salient aspects of my profile. One of the few friends from high school with whom I had kept in touch agreed to go to the reunion if I promised to go, too.  This sort of pact is a tricky business since you never know if the other one is going to chicken out at the last minute. But having known L. since the first grade, I felt I could trust her, and so I took the plunge and sent in my check. Soon others began to appear on the group email list, and efforts were made to track down more. A chunk of my classmates had simply fallen off the map, though our valedictorian was discovered to be living in Southern California, hooked on internet gambling. That’s what comes from being a math genius and going to Caltech, I suppose.

As the day approached, my anticipation increased. I began rummaging through my closet for something to wear. The calculations that go into what to wear to a 40th high school reunion are many and complex. You want to wear something that evokes your high school self while making it clear that you are no longer the ridiculous person you once were. You want youth but you also want poise; you want to say, “I’m fun but my life is rich and productive.” Most of all, you want to make clear that most salient of reunion facts: that you haven’t gotten fat (or at least not in areas visible in the right garment). It’s a lot of messaging to pack into a dress and requires much trying on and taking off of various ensembles, not to mention trips to Marshall’s for accessories. In the end, you have to arrive at the conclusion, which years of studying great literature might well have already taught you, that clothes can only do so much. So you concentrate on timing your hair coloring so that the roots will be definitively out of sight — difficult given how quickly roots have a tendency to assert themselves.

As we all know about things we look forward to: first they are a distant, vaguely anticipated idea, then they are a closer, more anxiously awaited prospect, and then finally, they’re upon us. That’s how time works. No matter how far away something may be for a while, soon it’s a lot closer, and before you know it it’s come and gone.  I’m speaking about the reunion but I may as well be speaking about the 40 years since high school or, for that matter, life itself, which is why a reunion carries such weight. If 40 years can go by so fast, you have to figure that you’ll be dead in the blink of an eye. But let’s not dwell on this morbid extrapolation and get back to the nuts and bolts of the event.

The reunion was held in a large, well-appointed hotel near my hometown. As I entered, I saw a crush of middle-aged people near a sign-up desk. This was my class, and soon individuals began to delineate themselves. It was like those pictures in coloring books where you have to find and color the hidden things in a wildlife scene: familiar faces emerging from double chins, once-known eyes and noses obtruding from white whiskers. There was J., for example, who half the female population of the class had had a crush on, standing near the door. He seemed to be in excellent spirits, which I suppose makes sense. If half the female population of your high school class had a crush on you, your disposition is made for life. Three of his old girlfriends were already shooting daggers at each other and vying for his attention. J. greeted me pleasantly and said that he had gone out with me once, too, which I suspect was apocryphal since I had no recollection of it. Perhaps he simply wanted to flatter me — or extend the reach of his imagined conquests into unconventional territory. J, as it happens, wouldn’t have been my type in high school. For reasons of originality or sour grapes, I only liked socially maladept if allegedly brilliant boys who had some vague disability such as a twitch or stammer. I think, for example, I harbored a longing for the valedictorian, now hooked on internet gambling. J, smart, congenial, and adorable as he was, would not have registered on my romantic radar — which tells you how elaborate my defense mechanisms were at that time.

There were a few people at the reunion whom I did go out with — “go out with” used loosely, since our relationship involved no physical contact (something of the Twilight syndrome without the vampires). One was a member of the debate team. There were only two members of the debate team in my high school, this boy and Craig Newmark, a name I’ll use because he’s famous as the founder of Craigslist. If anyone would have become famous as the founder of Craiglist it would have been Craig Newmark, though this did not help him much in high school. Strangely, Craig Newmark did not come to the reunion. I say “strangely” because why bother being the founder of a worldwide classifieds website and raking in probably a billion dollars unless you come to your high school reunion and lord it over everyone? But Craig, who had said he might come, didn’t — possibly because he had other things to do or possibly because the pain of high school did not, after all, outweigh being the billionaire founder of a world-wide classifieds website. Whatever those movies say to the contrary, there is a pain associated with high school that no amount of adult success — even worldwide fame and billions — can do much to salve.

Another boy I went out with (loosely speaking again) looked pretty much the same in black jeans and an irreverent air. In high school, we had enjoyed a lively repartee — repartee being my strong suit (given that I did not have Peggy Lipton hair) — and we reverted to this style of engagement immediately.

Others present vaguely evoked the people they’d been. There was a woman who still flicked the hair out of her eyes in a manner that still seemed cool. And there were the cheerleaders, who still looked cheery, though I have to say that there is nothing like the aging of a cheerleader’s physique to make you feel a pleasant shadenfreude. All those somersaults and splits in cute short skirts had not done them any good 40 years hence. By the same token, one of the more withdrawn boys — a softy pudgy creature who always sat in the back of the room and looked out the window — had emerged as a Liam Neeson lookalike with a successful construction company.

A tall, elegant fellow approached me at one point. “You probably don’t remember me,” he said. “I was one of the dumb jocks.” In fact, I did not remember him. Yet it seems that he was now engaged in important work for the State Department.

Occasionally, my friend and I would beckon to our husbands, who were hanging out near the carving station, so as to prove to a cheerleader that we had managed to snag a reasonably sane and not unpleasant looking male consort, one who had stayed with us for three decades and fathered a couple of children with us. Since many of the said cheerleaders were divorced, we took this as a sign of compensatory justice and paraded our husbands as the trophies that we had not won for our cheerleading acumen.

The reunion had the requisite dancing to late ’60s/early ’70s music, done in that foolish manner — hands waving, hips swaying — that I remember my parents doing to their music 40 years ago. And there was the recited list of those members of our class who had died. I found it hard to believe that some of those people, with whom I had traversed all of my school years and whose child-selves were still vivid in my memory, were no more. G, who I remembered from second grade, sitting behind me and picking his nose — was dead. It took a moment to wrap my mind around that piece of existential pathos.

I talked to all the people that I never said a word to in high school. We also pored over the memory book, where my contribution was, for reasons unexplained, not included (I must have sent my entry to the wrong email address), but where I learned about this person’s career as a lounge singer, that one’s work for the NIH, and a third who’s kid was at Harvard Medical School. Reunions, let’s face it, are self-selecting events; you don’t go unless you feel relatively good about yourself — though what one person needs to feel good (the loss of 20 pounds) and another (the making of a million dollars) is variable.

When the event was over, my friend and I agreed that it had been a success. We had had a good time talking, dancing, and posing for our class photo. Everyone was much nicer than they’d been in high school, which makes sense, since everyone realized that being nice was the least you could do, given that life is hard and we’ve all been beaten up by it to some degree. My friend and I felt we had cut a positive profile — our figures and complexions were appreciably better than they had been at 17, making us in certain ways ahead of the cheerleaders, some of whom had thickened, their once flawless complexions damaged by too much sun or a long-term smoking habit.

That said, I found myself a few days later in a terrible funk. What was it that depressed me? Perhaps it was the fact that my submission to the memory book had been lost and now no one would know that my life had turned out OK. But, on consideration, that was not it. It was a far more cosmic sort of sadness. I realized that the implicit expectation that had dogged me as I awaited the reunion over the months, then weeks, then days that preceded it was that I could somehow, with this event, relive my high school experience — do it over and get it right. I had been such a weird person between the ages of 15 and 18, full of awkward arrogance and capricious tastes. I had ignored a good portion of my high school class because I was extravagantly self-conscious and, quite simply, afraid. This fear had imbued most every facet of what I did and said during that time. The reunion, where we had all hugged and talked, from the nerd in the back to the chiseled prom queen, had been a kind of condensed opportunity to recapture and redo all those missed opportunities. Now it was over, and I realized I hadn’t really redone it at all. I didn’t know these people as I might have had I been a more open and tolerant person then.

But the feeling of loss extended beyond this sense of missed opportunity. For more than redoing high school, the reunion had stood for high school as a marker for the end of my childhood. And what I had yearned for most was to return to that blessed life of which high school still tenuously partook. To touch those people was to get as close as I could imagine to that sacred antecedent space when I had been cocooned in safety and love within my family. This was that idyll that existed before the inhibitions and expectations that high school ushered in and that had itself opened into adulthood with its stresses and strains, responsibilities and compromises. My life had turned out OK — better by far than I might have imagined — but the fact was that it had “turned out,” and what I yearned for most was to have it still to be. But that wasn’t going to happen. Time — 40 years of it — had gotten in the way. • 5 August 2011


Paula Marantz Cohen is Distinguished Professor of English and Dean of the Pennoni Honors College at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She is the author of 12 books, including six scholarly/nonfiction works on literature and film, and six novels, some spin-offs on Jane Austen and Shakespeare, and a thriller involving the James family and Jack the Ripper. She is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal, The Times Literary Supplement, The Yale Review, and The American Scholar, a co-editor of jml: Journal of Modern Literature, and the host of the nationally distributed television interview show, The Civil Discourse (formerly The Drexel InterView). Her book, Talking Cure: An Essay on the Civilizing Power of Conversation will be published by Princeton UP in February.